Guest: Hamburg, Eric
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Eric Hamburg
Title: Hollywood, USA
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind, where since the mid-1950s I’ve drawn upon guests from the widest possible range of interests, professions, points of view, with almost the singular exception of Hollywood and its brand of show business.
Now I say “almost” only because over this near half-century our guests have actually included Jack Valenti, the movie industry’s peripatetic lobbyist, though basically he was here to discuss the American Presidency, since earlier he had serviced Lyndon Baines Johnson in the White House as loyally as he now does the moguls in Hollywood. And the only other movie people here on The Open Mind have been the distinguished prize winning producer David Brown, actor/producer/director Robert Redford, and when he gave us his truly stunning film “JFK” the always controversial Oliver Stone, who in a way becomes central to today’s program, too.
For my guest now is Eric Hamburg, the title of whose new Public Affairs book is quite intriguing, JFK, Nixon, Oliver Stone and Me. With a sub-title that is even more revealing “An Idealists Journey from Capital Hill to Hollywood Hell”.
Eric Hamburg is a film producer, writer and lawyer in Los Angeles. He was the originator and co-producer of “Any Given Sunday” directed by Oliver Stone, having earlier originated and co-produced “Nixon”, also directed by Oliver Stone.
Before Hollywood, however, Mr. Hamburg had served in Washington, DC on the staff of Senator John Kerry and had worked for Representative Lee Hamilton at the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Now, to be sure, my guest has about as many nasty things to say about aspects of Hollywood, USA as I garnered during my twenty years of commuting there as Chairman of the film rating system.
Yet I think that my own criticisms have less to do with that place and its personnel than with the larger, more destructive concept of “anything goes” in mass media entertainment for profit in our ever more market driven society. Where there ever a publisher for it, my book likely would be called “Poisoned Channels” and relate to a lot more mass media matters than can be blamed on Hollywood.
Still, let me first ask Eric Hamburg to elaborate upon these sentences from JFK, Nixon, Oliver Stone and Me.
“I did know people in Washington, a lot of whom were very creative and fascinated with Hollywood and the movies. It has always been amazing to me that these two parallel worlds, Washington and Hollywood hold such interest and mystique for each other. People in Hollywood are fascinated by the aura of power and importance that surrounds Senators and Presidents. While people in Washington seem to be entranced by the glamour and celebrity of Hollywood stars.”
And so I would ask you, as we begin today, how do you explain that relationship between the two places that you happened to have worked in … Washington and Hollywood?
HAMBURG: Well, it’s a little puzzling … thank you for that introduction … I don’t really feel that I deserve to be in the category or company of the distinguished people that you named and that you have interviewed, but I have … as you mentioned, worked with Stone and also on Capitol Hill and I think … I don’t know … on the Capitol Hill side, it probably started with Kennedy. He obviously … well, I other than on the Washington side, as President, he was arguably involved with Marilyn Monroe. But clearly was fascinated by Sinatra and The Rat Pack and the whole Hollywood scene and Peter Lawford was his cousin, was involved in Hollywood. And, you know, now, there’s almost a back-lash … somebody … a Congressman was complaining the other day that they’re having too many Hollywood stars. But, you know, a sure way … if you’re going to hold a hearing and you want to get attention for an issue … you invite a Hollywood star to come and testify. You know, if … just hypothetically … well, let’s say, for example, Michael J. Fox, you know, to come and talk about Parkinson’s Disease.
HEFFNER: But there’s a real relationship there.
HAMBURG: Right. There is. But, you know, maybe you get Jessica Lang because she was in a movie about family farms to come and talk about farm issues. And, I mean, sometimes they stretch and, you know, I mean … a lot of stars, I think, you know, are intelligent. And think seriously about things and, or at least have strong feelings … and if they, you know, are motivated to do it, then, you know, the Committees are happy to have them. But I think there’s also … it goes beyond that, and I think there’s just, you know, there’s a star power to both places. I mean the ultimate convergence, of course, was Ronald Reagan, who was a Hollywood actor who became President. And I doubt that he would have been President or even Governor if he hadn’t first been a Hollywood actor. Let’s put it that way. And then Bill Clinton, of course, had a great fascination with stars like Spielberg or Barbara Streisand or what-have-you. And it’s a, it’s a mutual thing. I think each has something that the other doesn’t, I mean … or wants. I think the Washington people want sort of the glamour and the adulation. And that’s, you know, part of why they go into politics. And I think the Hollywood people want the respect and the power and influence of Washington so ….
HEFFNER: Do you regret that you went from Capitol Hill to Hollywood hell?
HAMBURG: Sometimes I do. But it works both ways. I mean I should probably explain just a little bit about why I would go from … I started off with Senator John Kerry who may very well be our next President. Or at least the next Democratic candidate. And I worked for him for several years and acquired a lot of respect for him.
And then I went to work for Lee Hamilton on the House side, on foreign affairs. And he is, you know, a very straight arrow, very highly respected … he’s retired now from the Congress. But, you know, the leading expert probably on foreign policy in the Congress. And, to make a long story short, he asked me to look into the issue of secrecy in government. He’d been Chairman of the Intelligence Committee and Iran-Contra Committee, and so on … and he felt that far too many documents were classified; there’s far too much secrecy in government. And that we ought to open it up.
And I always had kind of a side interest in the JFK issue. I don’t, by any means endorse or buy into all of Oliver Stone’s theories, but one of the things that’s not very well known is that, I mean, people do know that the Warren Commission came out with the, you know, the lone assassin theory of Lee Harvey Oswald. But they don’t know, by and large, that there was a Congressional Committee in the late seventies that re-investigated the whole assassination and came to the conclusion that it was a conspiracy. And that the Mafia was involved and they named three people who they said were likely to be co-conspirators.
And so you have two opposite official conclusions. And I just … to me … I just couldn’t accept the fact that … I mean here was a President of the United States that everybody loved, and how can we not know what happened. Or how can there be so much doubt and uncertainty. And I felt that what we really need is more facts. And I did a little research and found out that since the House had conducted this investigation, that the House, could, by its own vote, release … there were 800 boxes of files that had been sealed for 50 years. And I thought “why?”. Why seal them for 50 years. Let’s get at the truth. And so I convinced Lee Hamilton of that. And, and we were in a position to be able to do it. And then along came Oliver Stone and I’d seen some of his movies, I thought Platoon was very good, very powerful movie. And Wall Street and some of the others were good movies. And, you know, this was before he made JFK that we got into this effort and then we … I touched base … I had a mutual friend … got in touch and, and out of this, through Frank Mankiewicz was kind of an intermediary who was representing Stone and we all got together and had a meeting and so we came up with this Bill, and they pushed it. You know, of course, the movie generated a tremendous amount of public interest in this subject. And Congress was flooded with mail saying … there was a little trailer at the end saying that these files are sealed for fifty years and Congress was absolutely flooded with mail saying, you know, why can’t we know the truth? Why can’t these records be released to the public. You know, what’s so secret? And, so eventually we were able to pass a Bill to open up the files and, not only of the House, but of many other agencies and Hamilton was instrumental in that, and I helped him. And I got to know Oliver Stone. And he came and testified and we had sixteen television cameras there, and you know, and so we got the files released. And, and Stone felt very good about that, and I think he deserves credit for that, if nothing else, you know, for getting that … it’s rare to de-classify any documents, let alone three or four million pages, as there were. And so, he offered me a job. And I, I just thought it would be an adventure. I thought I’ll come out there … but I also thought … this episode illustrates to me the power that a movie can have. You know, that we never could have passed this Bill if not for the movie.
HEFFNER: Well, that’s a very special interest of yours … the secrecy involved here and the fact that the documents were under wraps and that thanks, to some extent, to Oliver’s picture they were released. But what do you think and what does your experience in Hollywood, because you then went to work for Oliver in Hollywood … what do you think about the power of film generally? What do you think about the impact of film … if you want to take JFK fine. Or Nixon. Tell me about that …
HAMBURG: Well …
HEFFNER: You’ve been there, you’ve seen it, you’ve done it. Evaluate it.
HAMBURG: Yeah. I … as I say I have mixed feelings about my adventure in Hollywood. I’m proud of Nixon, I think it was good movie. It was a different type of a movie than JFK. JFK had an agenda, where Oliver was trying to beat you over the head and convince you of his theory.
HEFFNER: He says the opposite, of course. He says, “No, I’m just saying look there are many ideas and I’m presenting you with another one.
HAMBURG: Right. He was saying it was a counter-myth. And he also said … something which I think is true is … and this is interesting, is that there was nothing new in JFK, every single fact quote/unquote presented in JFK had been published in one book or another and he just drew on those sources. But when he pulled it into a movie and used all of his skills and whatever you want to say … he’s a brilliant filmmaker .. You know, it had a force, an impact that that whole stack of a hundred JFK books never had.
HEFFNER: Now … question. Does that concern you?
HAMBURG: It does and …
HEFFNER: That power?
HAMBURG: … it doesn’t. I mean I was asked this question a lot when we were making Nixon. I remember I did an interview with a college radio show and a student asked me, well, you know, how do you feel about the fact that you’re sort of writing the history and that people are going to take this as history, as gospel. And I said well, you know, when I was in college we were taught to question everything. And I wouldn’t take any one movie as the gospel truth. What I would hope is that people go out and read books and that it stimulates them to educate themselves and to learn more.
And you know, I’ve given lectures at different universities to kids that are 18, 19, 20. They weren’t even born, you know, when Nixon was elected, or when he resigned, for that matter, let alone during. You know, JFK is like the Civil War to them, it’s ancient history.
HEFFNER: Then doesn’t it have all the more power? Because youngsters do not know, do not have a background against which they can be critical about what they see ..
HAMBURG: Well …
HEFFNER: Don’t forget you come from a very, very, very highly educated family. You’re very well educated yourself. So when you say, your assumption is that people just take this as another point of view and set it up against what they know. We know so little.
HAMBURG: Well, but I mean if you’re a student at a University …
HAMBURG: … shouldn’t you be required to take history and shouldn’t you be required to read some books and learn about some of that …
HEFFNER: Is that a rhetorical question, pray tell? Sure you should be, but you’re not most frequently. My students, I believe, learned most about JFK, their ideas about JFK’s assassination, I dare say, came from Oliver Stone. They came from what they saw on the screen. Seeing is still believing and there it was.
HAMBURG: Well, I can …
HAMBURG: … I can also say though that there were at least six or eight or ten books that hit the best seller list after JFK relating to that subject. And among them was Case Closed which argued the completely opposite point of view. So you could get a whole range of views …
HEFFNER: What was its readership? In numbers?
HAMBURG: I don’t know. But I think it was a pretty influential book. I think a lot of opinion leaders took it seriously. There’s always been a disjunction … you know the American public, by the polls, has always believed there was conspiracy … long before Oliver Stone, you know …probably ever since Lee Harvey Oswald was killed by Jack Ruby, they’ve been suspicious about a conspiracy. And I don’t claim to have the answers, but, but I think it is the duty of a history professor or of a college to assign books, to teach history. I mean kids should know about Watergate and the fundamental events in our history. And what Nixon was meant to do.
I wasn’t a producer on JFK, I didn’t make the movie, I was in the Congress at that time. So I don’t take, you know, responsibility …
HEFFNER: Okay, turn to Nixon then.
HAMBURG: But, Nixon was a different kind of a movie … John Dean who was a consultant on the movie I think, accurately said, “This is a portrait, not a photograph.” And, you know, one of the things that … one of things that’s interested me … because we did a lot of research on Nixon, not only first hand talking to people like Dean and many others who had worked with Nixon and people who had covered him like Dan Shure and getting all the different points of view, but also a lot of reading and research and history gets very over simplified, you know as time goes on and there’s much more detail to it than, than we recall and also there are a lot of lessons that are applicable and a lot of the secrecy and things that went on during the Nixon years, arguably are coming back now. So I think it has a relevance.
We weren’t trying to … some people accused, we got it from both sides. Some people said we were too sympathetic, some people said, we weren’t you know, hard enough on him. We tried to be fair to him, we tried to also understand him from a psychological point of view, from his childhood, from losing two brothers and, you know, relating that to the two Kennedy brothers. And tried to mix the personal … this is what fascinates me … is, is the convergence of the, the personal, the political and the psychological. And I don’t think you can separate them. When you look at any leader. Take Bill Clinton. How can you separate his Presidency from the psychology of the man. You know, I mean, with all of his quirks, to say the least, and but history is made, I believe … I’m not a Marxist … I don’t think its made by impersonal forces, I think it’s made by people. And so, I just find it fascinating to study those, those people. How they gained power, how they exercise it. How they used it or abused it. And, you know, how that influenced history.
HEFFNER: Of course, what I’m most interested in is what influenced your film. Whether it’s Nixon, or Any Given Sunday is in painting the picture for Americans of what football is or what their President … man who they elected, really, three times … once when the election was stolen …
HEFFNER: … by Jack Kennedy’s father. And twice when he occupied the Presidency. What the picture is of Richard Nixon that you come away with when you see your film … what ….
HAMBURG: Well …
HEFFNER: … what power that has.
HAMBURG: I think, you know, probably some historians would argue about the 1960 election whether or not it was stolen, just as people will probably argue forever about the 2000 election. But leaving that aside I think that we were, as I say, trying to paint a portrait, you know, of Nixon that was sort of rounded from different sides, and tried to understand him more than to … it wasn’t a conspiracy movie, we weren’t trying to re-write the history of Watergate. But I think that, you know, we were trying to gain an understanding of … I mean he was a brilliant, but very flawed individual. And it was the flaws in his psychology … I think Eliot Richardson whom we met with, the late Eliot Richardson said he had … he could have been a great President but he had the defects of his qualities. In other words, the same things that made him great, also brought him down.
HEFFNER: When you were working on Nixon did you think of yourself as an American historian? Or did you think of yourself as an entertainer?
HAMBURG: Well I’m not … no … I don’t think of myself as an entertainer. I hesitate to even think of myself as a Hollywood producer [laughter]. But … and I’m not, really, a historian, either. I’m sort of an amateur historian, but I’m fascinated by the period and certainly we did talk to historians. But we looked at a lot of books. For example, I found … I think one of the best books, is little known … is Fawn Brody’s biography called Richard Nixon, The Shaping of His Character. And to me that gets at the essence. It was, you know, his character, that, you know, created Richard Nixon, that brought him to the top and then that brought him all the way down. And so, you know, we did study a lot of history. And we also, we published a book of the film, that included not only the annotated script, because we didn’t want to get slammed like Oliver did on JFK. We published the annotated script with footnotes for everything. We had essays by everybody from Paul Nitze to E. Howard Hunt. And original essays commissioned for the book. Plus we published the Nixon tapes, some of them in the second half of the book. I can tell you the tapes are far more damning than anything that we could write in a script. And people criticized us and said, Oh he never would have said this or that. And then when more tapes were released, he did say those things. You know, and yet you have to give him credit for detente, for the SALT Treaty, for the opening to China, for some things he did even in welfare reform in the domestic arena. And, you know, he was a brilliant political tactician. And he had, I would say, even a fourth campaign, which was his campaign to rehabilitate himself after …
HAMBURG: … he left the Presidency, which was quite successful.
HEFFNER: Quite successful. So that upon his death it would seem as though a great national hero had passed. What do you think your Nixon contributed to that?
HAMBURG: Well, I don’t know. I hope it didn’t contribute in the sense of making him a national hero. We did show a clip of the funeral with Bob Dole speaking and Bill Clinton speaking. And Clinton said, you know, it’s high time that the man be judged on his entire record, not just on one episode, which Clinton might very well want to say that about himself as well. But, you know, I think that … hopefully, we contributed to a balanced, more balanced look at Richard Nixon and maybe … I can tell you the film frankly did not do that well at the box office.
But now films have a longer life because you have cable TV and you have video and this and that. And I hope that people will watch it in the future. And I don’t think it was a movie that trashed Richard Nixon. I mean it showed the truth, which was bad enough. You know, he did bomb Cambodia, he did want to bomb the Brookings Institute, but didn’t succeed in that. And, you know, there were several break-ins, not just the one that we all know about.
But, you know, he basically created the plumbers unit as a secret government within a government and, you know, I would hope actually that people would look at it and then look around at what’s happening right now, with all the secrecy, with all the pulling back from Constitutional rights, you know … and all the, you know, a lot of these people like Cheney and Rumsfeld started under Nixon.
Somebody actually asked Rumsfeld the other day if he was “Deep Throat”. Because he was in the Nixon Administration [laughter]. And he laughed and I don’t think that he was. I actually don’t believe that there was a “Deep Throat” personally, but, you know, I hope people would read some books and study some history. Tom Wicker has written a very good book on Nixon, which is fairly sympathetic actually. And there are many good books. Steven Ambrose, even though his reputation is now questionable, you know, did a three volume trilogy on Nixon. And there’s no end to the books you can read on Nixon and Watergate.
HEFFNER: You know what we haven’t done today and we have less than a minute left, what we haven’t done has gotten closer to the notion of this being a journey, for an idealist, or of an idealist to a Hollywood Hell, and sometime you’ve got to come back Eric Hamburg, and talk about the Hollywood Hell … it certainly comes out in the book and I guess I failed to let you bring it out here, but thank you very much for joining me today. And congratulations on the book, Hollywood hell or not.
HAMBURG: Thank you very much for having me and I’d be happy to come back and talk about Hollywood hell any time.
HEFFNER: All right, Eric, thanks. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.